September 12, 2003 11:43am EST
New grads Paul (Rider Strong) Karen (Jordan Ladd) Jeff (Joey Kern) Marcy (Cerina Vincent) and Bert (James Debello) head off to a cabin in the woods to let off some post-college steam before entering the working world. They are a pretty likeable bunch except for Bert who gets drunk and starts shooting at squirrels with a rifle--and then accidentally shoots a stranger in the woods. Bert keeps mum about the incident until the man projectile vomiting blood and looking like he's been skinned alive shows up at the cabin and tries to take their truck. While trying to stop him Paul unintentionally sets him on fire and the gang watches as he runs ablaze into the woods. What they don't know however is that he had a contagious flesh-eating virus. When his charred body falls into the local water reservoir everyone becomes vulnerable. The first to gulp down a glass of water filled with strange chunky particles is Karen whom they forcibly quarantine in a shed behind the cabin when she begins to show signs of the disease. Before long the fear of contagion turns the remaining four against one another. What's more a local lynch mob has formed in order to track down and kill anyone who may have come in contact with the virus which has apparently threatened this small town before. Cabin Fever is definitely a rollicking ride; it will scare you gross you out and make you laugh.
Like most low-budget horror films Cabin Fever's cast isn't exactly stellar yet the young actors and actresses really elevate the material. The most refreshing thing about the characters is that they react to what is happening to them in a way you and I probably would as opposed to the typical slasher-flick way: Instead of banding together against the common enemy they bicker act like cowards and put themselves first. Strong who last appeared in My Giant but is probably better known as Shawn from the TV series Boy Meets World emerges as a capable lead as Paul the most sensible of the group. Although his character comes across as somewhat brighter and more sensitive than the rest he is still immature enough to try to cop a feel when his love interest Karen is sleeping and feeling under the weather. Karen meanwhile is played by Ladd who has had small roles in several movies including The Specials and Never Been Kissed. Her character is the most compassionate of the gang and Karen reacts more intensely to events than the others. Kern as cocky know-it-all Jeff Vincent as slutty tough chick Marcy and Debello as party boy Bert perfectly round out the diverse cast of characters.
Because of its gruesome subject matter it is difficult to describe such a vile movie as being good or even well made but this one really is. In his feature directorial debut helmer Eli Roth delivers a truly disturbing horror picture. While most pics of this genre tend to look cold and gritty Roth saturates his sets with golden ambient lighting that brightly contrasts the film's dark dismal subject matter. And dismal is putting it mildly: Cabin Fever shows viewers things that most movies don't because they would be considered too disturbing. Case in point: When the intoxicated Bert drives off for help in his pickup and hits a deer the animal doesn't just die on impact but struggles in pain its hind legs flailing through the windshield. Such disturbing imagery escalates by degrees until the very end when the film takes on a weird surreal quality. For example the scenes of Paul being pushed through a hospital on a gurney have a dreamlike feel bound to make moviegoers question if what is happening is real. The film's score also has all sorts of unusual instrumental influences including a Twin Peaks-inspired number when a sheriff comes to investigate the cabin and a Deliverance-type banjo ditty to accompany the locals folk in front of the general store which adds a touch of humor at the most unlikely moment.
FBI agent Wesley Doyle (Powers Boothe) is cold on the trail of Texas' notorious "God's Hand" serial killer until he's paid a mysterious call by solemn Fenton Meiks (Matthew McConaughey). It seems Meiks could bust the case wide open--he declares that "God's Hand"'s handiwork is that of his brother Adam and he's got a long and complicated tale to tell that'll explain it. Doyle's ears perk up and he and Meiks embark on a trip to the rose garden where Meiks claims Adam buried his victims and then killed himself. On the way Meiks reveals his gory story. It involves the boys' kindly father (Bill Paxton) who was a sensitive caring man--until he went insane one day claiming God had chosen him and his family to kill all the "demons" that inhabit Earth disguised as real people like their neighbors. Dad regularly makes a list and checks it twice for all the demon folk he needs to exterminate on any given Sunday but he's not on this holy mission alone--his sons are "God's hands" as well and together they must hunt down the demons and destroy them. In a weird variation on Cain and Abel 12-year-old Fenton rebels against Dad (killing others isn't exactly his idea of a fun after-school activity) while little brother Adam is happy to join in.
Because the movie is told mostly in flashback McConaughey is relegated mostly to voiceover and a few present-day scenes in which he acts frighteningly morose and gives the sense that there's more to his story than first meets the eye. Because most of the story takes place in 1979 the boys are the ones who really make this film work. Fenton the younger (Matthew O'Leary) is a real find--he clearly struggles with his love for his father whom he knows has gone over the edge and his repulsion for the deeds Dad is determined to have the family carry out. Wrestling with his own demons he finally is able to settle on a solution for how to stop the horror. Little Adam (Jeremy Sumpter) is quite good as the innocent youngster who adores his dad and hangs on his every word seeking only his approval and refusing to believe he has lost his mind. Paxton effectively bridges the transitions between gentle loving father and insane murderer insisting the boys finish all their veggies and revealing his next victim in one breath. He's like those killers on the news about whom people say "But…he was such a nice quiet guy." The performance almost verges on funny if it weren't so horrific.
Paxton makes an auspicious directing debut with this tight little movie keeping the action going and the plot flowing and letting you completely get to know the characters as they exist in their own eras. He deftly avoids choppy flashbacks and the potentially confusing story is perfectly clear yet no less gripping. The killing scenes are absolutely squirm-in-your-seat nightmarish but thankfully we don't see all the grisly details as with so many slasher flicks. Instead we're shown everything right up to the point of death and we're spared the splattering blood and guts. It's just enough to make you cringe and cover your eyes and ultimately far worse to imagine the outcome than to see it all in special effects and makeup. Frailty is also scarier than the typical slasher flick bloodfest--it's way more frightening to imagine the nice guy next door committing such crimes than a made-up character wearing a hockey mask or razors on his gloves. The movie also comes up with a startling twist that you don't see coming right away. But--without revealing too much--the movie falls apart at the end with some enormous problems. Sometimes directors try to explain too much; we won't so we'll just leave it at that.